Casual Fridays: What makes a good writer?

Some people just seem to be natural writers -- they can write perfect, elegant sentences with a minimum of effort. Some popular fiction novelists crank out 6 or more novels per year. Some bloggers write 10 or more posts per day. Others labor over every word, or simply choose careers that don't require a lot of writing. But are there universal characteristics that separate good writers from bad writers, and quick writers from slow writers?

I think I may have come up with a quick study that can answer those questions -- and like all Casual Fridays studies, it can be completed in just a few minutes. With any luck, we may have some (non-scientific) insight into what makes a good writer -- or at least a quick one.

Click here to participate

As usual, the study is brief, with about 15 questions. It should take only a few minutes to complete. You have until Thursday, November 19 to complete your response. There is no limit on the number of respondents. Don't forget to come back next week for the results!

(Just a reminder: All Casual Fridays studies are non-scientific. This doesn't mean we can't use scientific principles to assess what's going on, but we can't make general claims based on the results)

Update (Nov. 19): I'm closing down the survey. An amazing 858 respondents completed the essay test. Now I'm going to "grade" it.

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Ah, but I don't believe you can separate the writing from the context.. what is 'good writing' in one place or time can be disastrous in another. I wonder how you assess that part... i mean it's easy enough to measure how much people write or how easy they find it, but quality is related to context. Good writing in a novel might be bad writing in a weather forecast, good blogging might be a bad technical report, a scientific paper might not be the thing to send home to your mum at christmas, she might rather have a card. The best writers are those who write appropriately.. not who write the most, or the fastest, or even necessarily those with the best wit or rhythm or pace, just the people who have the right words in the exact right place.

It might be worth noticing that some people probably have no idea what their writing speed is. I am one such person, and I answered based on the sample I had written myself a while before with a little boost because I knew I weren't at my fastest. Still, I have no idea how accurate that answer was.

I wasn't sure on what you meant with the typo question - I answered based on my estimate of how many typos I fixed during my writing session, but I wasn't sure because it wasn't something I was paying attention to. I was also a bit unclear on what constituted a typo - since I use a mac, spelling errors are automatically highlighted even within a web browser, so there are spelling errors, and then there are times when I mistype a word that I know how to spell.

It's a long time since I've tried automatic writing.

Presumably the question where we estimate our own writing speed is to check how accurate the estimate is. People tend to think they read a lot faster than they do (and untrained readers tend to read at about the same speed they speak) so maybe something similar operates with writing.


Good writers know that starting a comment with "ah" sounds extremely arrogant, and will prepare the reader for pretentious rehashing of cliches or vapid descriptions of the obvious.

I just thought that would be good advice.

I spent most of my time in the writing sample part fighting with my husband, who chose that very moment to start being very distracting ^^; Yeay for unpredictable testing environments!

I am a meticulous grammar nazi and I feel ashamed I did not pick out any typos.

Interesting topic, by the way. I have some thoughts about it, but I think I'll wait until after you release the findings before I write about them.

I just completed the survey. I shall wait for the results. Writing has been a biggest challenge for me in recent past and I am looking forward to some pointers from the next week's post.

Thank You,
Parimala Shankaraiah

A suggestion: could you get one or two people whom you know to be excellent writers to take your test, to serve as a calibration for the others? On the other side, it would probably be a good idea to get some truly execrable writers to serve as a calibration at the low end. It shouldn't be hard to find such people; almost any college freshman or Fox News reporter could serve admirably. ;-)

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 14 Nov 2009 #permalink

Some people just seem to be natural writers

That is largely pig excrement. There is actually very little difference in ability that is not due to tremendous amounts of practice. It's just like music - do you think Mozart got good because he had some magic Mozart gene? Well, if you do, you're ignorant. The writings of Mozart, his father, and their close associates all clearly show that his father made him practice as much as 60 hours a week, starting at the age of about four. That's what made him good - practice. Look into the life of any great writer - and you will invariably find they expended horrendous amounts of time practicing their craft.

"Type as much as possible"? I could hit a lot more random keys than I could type coherent English. And I was conflicted whether or not to go back. But I suspect that this is in fact all camouflage anyway :).

[And I agree with the note that many, including me, will have no idea of their typing speed.]

It would also be interesting to know how many test takers bailed out when getting to the writing part. I did -- it seemed too much of a hassle for a casual test. (I wonder in what direction us lazy people might skew results?)


Good writers know that starting a comment with "ah" sounds extremely arrogant, and [...]

Yes, we can all see you have certainly mastered the art of arrogance, and I am sure we will all learn from your most instructive example. Thank you, it was very kind.

(And on a side note, if you -- that is, the rest of you -- want to sound extremely arrogant right at the outset, you just can't beat "Sorry, but..." for an opening move.)

That was fun! I'd love to know what you were really looking for. I'm glad I'm subscribed to this blog so I'll get to see the results when they come out.

Stephen: It would have been fun to publish them somewhere... but I would feel a little guilty about it because I didn't ask anyone for copyright releases. Any thoughts on that?

Will you at least tell us if people relied on narrative to generate wordage? I am very curious as to the creative strategies of filling that box!

1. How much formal writing do you do as a part of your job / studies?

⢠Do not include casual emails, texts, tweets, etc.
⢠Do include blog posts, "official" emails, reports, stories, articles, proposals, and so on.

I'm a bit unclear about this question... what other sort of formal writing is there?

Hm, I figured the quickest way to generate was to write things like "If a potato is a potato then it is a potato potato" (and variations thereupon), so that's what I did. Did other people do similarly? Or does they not consider that "coherent"?

You didn't ask for permission for the short answers to the Fox and the Grapes quiz... Is there a standard length that you have to ask for permission? I'm curious to see how long these essays are now--not that it can be answered before Friday, but still. I would think they would still be pretty short.

I think my results were a little skewed because I am doi g this on my iPhone and it's a little hard to type on the little touchscreen keys. Had I known I was going to need to actually type quickly I would have done it on a real keyboard. And I do think some people are naturally better writers, practic aside. Practice is what separates fantastic writers from merely good ones.

At first I was simply curious about this topic, but now I'm second guessing the title itself. I was initially interpreting 'makes' as 'signifies' or 'indicates', but upon reading the other responses I see that most people interpreted it as 'creates' or 'produces'.
It's interesting in any case, but I'm amused at this immediate example of how difficult it is to communicate clearly.

I'd say you have a hit on your hands, Dave. Kudos, regardless of the results or revelations next week! By the by, since there was no audible clue of time running out, I'm wondering if one of your measures was how long folks kept going after the time limit? Not paying attention to the time might denote ease of or absorption in the task??? (And now you've invalidated one of my answers - yes, I now have responded to a blog posting!)

I am a terribly literal person--not literary. When I saw the question about reading I took it very literally, but I wondered if that was the right way to take it.

I read many books but most are non-fiction.

@LR: Oops. Now I realize that I misread the directions in the same way you did. The second instruction says "Do", not "Do not". I greatly underestimated how much I write. Sorry. (Evidently, I fail at reading.)

So, what does "good" mean?

Writing is an Art.ã What good Art is, has many different answers.ã Most
artists have their own notion of what Art should be to them.ã I have my idea.
ãFor me, Art begins when an artist perceives something special.ã If,
then, that artist is able to communicate that something special to a chosen audience,
in a chosen medium, then that is Art.ã

Applying that to writing, I hold that "good" writing is writing that expresses something
special to whomever the writer chooses.ã If the writer succeeds, that is good
writing.ã Polish does not make the difference between "good" writing and "not
good."ã Polish usually enhances the communication, and thereby enhances the
Art.ã Mark Twain was not recognized at first as a polished writer.ã
In fact, he was.ã He simply chose to write the way he did to communicate what
he communicated.ã That was "good" writing.

In the public domain is Robert Louis Stevensonâs "Essays in the Art of Writing."ã
For me, this is a great inspiration for the craft of writing.ã Bob gives "elegant"
writing a higher level of achievement from which to measure "good" writing. Perhaps
most would find his style out of style.ã [smiles]ã Such is Art.

We may now briefly enumerate the elements of style. We have, peculiar to the prose
writer, the task of keeping his phrases large, rhythmical, and pleasing to the ear,
without ever allowing them to fall into the strictly metrical: peculiar to the versifier,
the task of combining and contrasting his double, treble, and quadruple pattern, feet
and groups, logic and metre - harmonious in diversity: common to both, the task of
artfully combining the prime elements of language into phrases that shall be musical
in the mouth; the task of weaving their argument into a texture of committed phrases
and of rounded periods - but this particularly binding in the case of prose: and,
again common to both, the task of choosing apt, explicit, and communicative words.
We begin to see now what an intricate affair is any perfect passage; how many faculties,
whether of taste or pure reason, must be held upon the stretch to make it; and why,
when it is made, it should afford us so complete a pleasure. From the arrangement
of according letters, which is altogether arabesque and sensual, up to the architecture
of the elegant and pregnant sentence, which is a vigorous act of the pure intellect,
there is scarce a faculty in man but has been exercised. We need not wonder, then,
if perfect sentences are rare, and perfect pages rarer. --- Conclusion, Chapter One…

à Hill

I wrote about the research my lab is doing so I could not write as fast as I am physically capable as I was thinking of what facts to include in what order. If I'd written a fictional narrative I probably could have written much faster. I also went back to correct typing errors.

I think it sounds very interesting, and I, for one, wouldn't care at all if you published my writing bit. Of course, my writing bit literally consisted of me translating my thoughts into sentences, and was probably unbelievably boring, but you're welcome to publish it. I don't really think there is a huge issue with copyright unless someone wrote something truly profound or personal in less than three minutes - and if they did, well, that's just impressive.

I did what I was always told to do when answering an examination question...stop....think....plan...then execute your answer. The problem? Almost 2 minutes passed by before I started typing!


Good writers know that starting a comment with "ah" sounds extremely arrogant, and will prepare the reader for pretentious rehashing of cliches or vapid descriptions of the obvious.

I just thought that would be good advice.

Posted by: Drew | November 13, 2009 10:56 PM

Disagree. I just think it sounds conversational...the way Teiana might respond in person.

Nor do I agree that "Sorry, but" is always arrogant. These sweeping rules are what's wrong with most writing pedantry--no allowance for tone, subject, etc.

I'm amused that so many assumed that "more is better." Just because you've been asked a question about speed, and told that the test is timed, doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be "graded" on volume produced. That certainly wouldn't be my definition of a "good writer." (Acknowledgment to Mick, who appears to have been the only other commenter who mentioned this...)

My stupid move--when I glanced in the upper corner & noticed that time was up, I stopped writing in mid-sentence. Been reading Predictably Irrational too much, lately, I guess. (The author of which proposes essentially that we'll all cheat given the right opportunity.) So if we're "graded" on sentence structure...yipes.

that was fun. Since you gave a hint at the end as to what was really going on, I went through it a second time w/ another browser to look for the little gotchas that you threw in there. There are some good ones. I missed the one HL points out - that is beautiful! I like that step 2 is missing. can't wait to read next week's post!